Middle East

More deadly explosions raise fears of insurgency in Syria

Tens of thousands of protesters defied regime gunfire and took to the streets in the town of Dael in Deraa province.

BEIRUT: An explosion hit Syria’s northern city of Aleppo Friday, just hours after state TV said the army had foiled a would-be suicide attack in the city, raising fears the country is drifting toward an Iraq-style insurgency.

Elsewhere across the country Friday, peaceful protesters defied Syrian army gunfire and took to the streets in the tens of thousands to protest the rule of President Bashar Assad.

The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said no one had been killed by the Aleppo blast close to the ruling party headquarters, which came a day after twin bombings in Damascus left scores dead.

“Initial details indicate that the Aleppo blast was targeting the local branch of the ruling Baath party and there is no information until now on the number of victims that fell in the explosion,” the British-based group said in an email.

Activists in the city said they heard a very large noise that appeared to come from an area in the heart of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and business hub.

“The sound was so loud and after that there were a lot of echoes of gunfire. Now all the roads leading to Saadallah al-Jabiry square are closed down,” said an activist who asked not to be identified.

One person was reportedly killed in gunfire immediately after the blast, but circumstances were unclear.

Earlier in the day, state television reported Syrian authorities “foiled an attempted suicide attack in Al-Shaar area in Aleppo, and killed the would-be attacker,” saying the attacker’s car was laden with 1,200 kilos of explosives.

Anti-regime activists dismissed the official account as “a lie,” according to Aleppo-based activist Mohammad al-Halabi Halabi.

“It is not in the interests of the [rebel] Free Syrian Army to stage attacks on a Friday,” the day of weekly mass anti-regime protests over the past 14 months, Halabi told AFP.

Activists said some 11 people were killed across the country Friday, in areas including central Hama and southern Deraa, where an 11-year-old child died from sniper fire, according to the Observatory.

Troops shot and wounded five protesters in the capital and 20 in the central town of Helfaya, where two civilians also died, while another demonstrator was killed in Aleppo, the Observatory said.

Halabi said the protester died from his wounds after regime forces opened fire in the Salaheddine neighborhood.

“Thousands of people are protesting in spite of gunfire. They are condemning the criminality of yesterday’s bombing,” he added.

All but one of those killed Friday were civilians, with one soldier killed and six others wounded in Jisr al-Shugur city in Idlib province when a blast hit their vehicle.

Protesters condemned the U.N. for failing to stop the violence in Syria, calling for “immediate international military intervention,” Halabi said.

Thursday’s bomb attacks in the capital, which targeted a military intelligence building, were the deadliest in 14 months of unrest, killing 55 people and wounding nearly 400, to a chorus of international condemnation.

The United Nations called on both sides in the conflict to cooperate with a month-old cease-fire as President Bashar Assad’s regime and the opposition traded accusations over the perpetrators of the carnage.

The head of The Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun said the regime was trying to destroy a U.N.-brokered peace plan for the country, during a news conference in Tokyo.

“Assad feels he can run away from implementing all of his obligations without consequences,” Ghalioun said.

Thursday’s bombings have raised fears that extremist elements could be taking advantage of the deadlock in Syria to stoke the unrest.

An Islamist group calling itself Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility online for the Damascus attack, the SITE Monitoring Service said Thursday.

It said two bombs it had placed near a military headquarters on a central highway in the capital on May 5 had killed around 20 guards. For many, the Al-Qaeda-style tactics recall those once familiar in the country’s eastern neighbor, Iraq, raising fears that Syria’s conflict was drifting further away from the Arab Spring calls for political change and closer to a bloody insurgency.

“Syria is slowly but surely turning into another Iraq,” said Bilal Y. Saab, a Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

World powers condemned Thursday’s attacks and urged both sides to the conflict to adhere to the cease-fire, brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

The Security Council urged the regime and rebels to “immediately and comprehensively” implement Annan’s six-point peace plan, “in particular to cease all armed violence.”

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who warned earlier this week of possible civil war if Annan’s plan failed, also renewed a call for all sides to cease violence and “to distance themselves from indiscriminate bombings and other terrorist acts.”

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also condemned attacks in the town of Deraa and in Damascus. “The unending wave of violence makes Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s mission to strive for peace and calm all the more difficult,” she said.

“I call on the parties to fully cooperate with his mission and do their utmost to achieve a cessation of violence without further delay.”

Syria’s U.N. envoy, meanwhile, said Britons, French and Belgians were among foreign fighters killed in the country’s escalating conflict and that there was Al-Qaeda involvement.

In Idlib, a flashpoint of unrest, protesters held up slogans reading: “When are you going to understand? There is no Al-Qaeda here,” according to amateur videos posted by activists on YouTube.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari told the Security Council 12 foreign fighters had been killed and 26 detained in recent clashes with Syrian forces, “including one French citizen, one British citizen, one Belgian citizen.”

A list of the 26 detained had been sent to Ban and the Security Council.

Syria’s main regional ally Iran accused Western powers of orchestrating Thursday’s bombings, with First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi saying the attacks were aimed at halting reforms in the country.

The Syrian government blamed foreign-backed “terrorists,” a term used by authorities to refer to rebels seeking to topple Assad’s regime.

The main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council, responded by accusing the authorities of resorting to “terrorism” to bury the Annan plan.

The uprising in Syria began as a peaceful popular revolt but has turned into an insurgency amid mounting calls to arm rebels seeking to overthrow Assad.

More than 12,000 people, the majority of them civilians, have died since the uprising began, according to the Observatory.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 12, 2012, on page 1.




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